Some common sense warranted in emotional debates

A suburban New York newspaper ignited a massive debate recently when it published names and home addresses of local gun owners. The Journal News in White Plains had attained the information through a public information request for the more than 33,000 names from the local governments in Westchester and Rockland counties in the wake of the December 14 Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting.

Some gun owners reacted predictably by writing and calling the paper saying they would boycott TJN advertisers. Others went much farther by threatening employees of the newspaper with harm. The names, addresses and phone numbers for the paper’s workers were also published online.

The debate over the right for the public’s access to open government records versus the press publishing some of those records remains healthier than ever. When a Facebook friend, a former reporter with whom I worked, asked for fellow FB member input regarding the use of such data used by TNJ he received various opinions including that of my own.

My experiences in having,on numerous occasions, retrieved open records information from government entities gave me a particular insight as to whether the New York publication erred in publishing identifying information about its area gun owners.

The use of public information as a journalist is obviously a double-edged sword. While the government does not keep, at least I hope they don’t, information based on who works for a particular newspaper there are plenty of sources of information out there for one who seeks it which can be used to identify someone. The Internet and other computer-aided means of gathering data has made retrieving such information much, much easier for the media as well as the public in general. With most local and state governments as well as the federal government scads of personal information can be accessed. Databases — some free while others not — exist for information such as license registration as well as criminal and various civil records. Many of the folks I know who use computers frequently check free records for registered sex offenders who might live in the neighborhood.

But as I shared with my Facebook compadre there are times when records should be made public by a media outlet and other times not. I was taught to give as full an identity as possible when identifying those who were involved somehow in a criminal activity. Maybe sometimes I went overboard but I tried to give my readers as complete a picture as possible. I found though that the media — I’m speak specifically about managers — often wrongly use public data just because they can.

While I have found a number of public information items useful I did not always use them mostly because they had no to limited news value. I am particularly peeved when I view 911 tapes from a crime or emergency. While some of this information is newsworthy, too often it appears used only because it shows sensational emotion. I feel the names and addresses of the New York gun owners falls into the category of having little use toward news value and appears to be used more from the emotional reaction of the tragic events of the more than 20 fatalities in the Sandy Hook shooting.

That said I feel publishing the identifying information of TNJ employees and threats of physical harm was nothing but mean-spirited. There are less juvenile ways of making known one’s displeasure of news content. It is time people, both news providers and consumers, start using some common sense.








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